There’s a royal problem in portraying the ruler

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Akira Kurosawa once told me that if he were to make a film about the Emperor, “I would probably be killed. … Even if the film were highly positive, just the fact that I was using the Emperor as a character would be enough to make (the rightists) mad.”

Kurosawa may have been exaggerating — by 1991, when I interviewed him for The Japan Times Weekly, assassinations for lese-majeste were rare indeed, but he also had a point: Even after the end of World War II and the famous declaration by Emperor Hirohito (posthumously known as Emperor Showa) that he was not a living god, but human like the rest of us, Japanese filmmakers still had to tread carefully around the subject of the Emperor.

Mitsugu Okura, president of the struggling Shintoho studio, violated the taboo against depicting the Emperor on screen in the 1958 epic, “Meiji Tenno to Nichiro Daisenso (Emperor Meiji and the Great Russo-Japanese War).” But former silent-era action star Kanjuro Arashi proved a huge hit in the title role. It helped that the film’s depiction of Emperor Meiji, dead nearly half a century by the film’s release, was flattering rather than critical.

Foreign directors have not always been so reverent. In “The Sun,” a 2005 film focusing on Emperor Hirohito in the final days of World War II and the immediate aftermath, Russian director Alexander Sokorov portrayed his hero as an abstracted, unworldly man living in a tiny bubble that suddenly burst with Japan’s defeat. Starring Issey Ogata, an actor best known for his one-man comic-skit shows, the film was selected for the 2005 Berlin Film Festival and won the grand prize at the St. Petersburg International Film Festival, but was considered a poor prospect for a Japan release until the small distributor Slow Learner opened it in two Tokyo theaters to standing-room-only crowds in August 2006.

When I worked as a script adviser on the Tom Cruise action-drama “The Last Samurai,” however, director Edward Zwick told me he wanted to respect the sensibilities of the Japanese audience, which meant not only showing Emperor Meiji (played by kabuki actor Shichinosuke Nakamura) in a favorable light, but getting the details of court ritual right. He quizzed my fellow advisor Yo Takeyama, a veteran scriptwriter of historical dramas, on how characters, including the American mercenary played by Cruise, should conduct themselves in the Imperial presence, and even had him visit the set in Kyoto for a key scene between the Emperor and a rebel samurai general played by Ken Watanabe.

Partly as a result, local complaints were fewer than usual for a set-in-Japan Hollywood film and “The Last Samurai” went on to earn more here — ¥13.7 billion — than it did in its target market of the United States. The moral, I suppose, is that the Emperor can be big box office — but still watch your back.

  • Paul Martin

    Film makers should NOT be concerned about ANY censorship or annoyances caused by controversy anymore than journalists ! The whole idea is to be creative and express free thought and to enlighten audiences and provoke them to think deeply about the subject of the movie. This is what directors like Oliver Stone and Michael Moore do and it is NOT for the Japanese or anyone else to decide on a film’s content,etc. If pictures like Pearl Harbor or The Pacific by Spielberg had been at the mercy of Japanese censorship they would never have made it into theatres. It is not the producers-directors fault that some folk cannot live with their own country’s historical facts !

    • DA

      The problem though is that unless you are indeed Stone or Moore it’s extremely hard to fund such a film, get permission to shoot, etc. It’s not only about numbers at the box office, it’s about getting the film made at all!

      • Paul Martin

        I could and would make that film if I had the resources